WHETHER PAPUA NEW GUINEA was ready to govern itself in 1975 is a moot point really. It had been governing itself for thousands of years already.
The question was rather whether it was prepared to centralise its government in the same way as Australia and other western countries so that it could be dealt with on their terms rather than its own.
It needed some form of government to avoid being prey to the outside world, Indonesia in particular, but there were plenty of alternatives.
In that sense, the form of self-government and independence being foisted on it by Australia was a trap into which Michael Somare and the Pangu Pati willingly fell.
So why did the founding fathers fall into the pit so easily? They were certainly well aware of alternatives and discussed them at great length. Joe Nombri, whose brain was considered dangerous and who had been banished to the wilds of the Western District, often discussed alternatives when we shared a house in Kiunga.
I occasionally saw Ebia Olewale in Daru and he told me the same thing. Later, so did Sinaka Goava in Port Moresby. I don’t know about Tony Voutas but I know that Barry Holloway canvassed several different scenarios. And Michael Somare knew Tom Mboya of Kenya well.
Tom Mboya was a moderate whose views were generally acceptable to the Australian government. He toured Papua New Guinea in 1964 as a guest of Australian prime minister John Gorton.
Mboya said in an article, These are our Brothers, in 1965 that “the development of a strong political party and trade union movement [in PNG] is a matter of urgency. It is something which must be initiated and run by the Papuans themselves but trade unions in Australia can play a bigger part”. He was, in effect, advocating a form of socialism for Papua New Guinea.
Charles (Ceb) Barnes, the Minister for Territories, didn’t have a problem with this and neither did Gorton. Barnes thought that Mboya’s criticisms were much more constructive than both those of the United Nations and the Australian intelligentsia in Port Moresby.
John Guise was such a fan of Mboya that he started to dress like him. Paulus Arek was another fan. So the alternatives were there for the choosing.
I can only think of two reasons why Pangu didn’t take up the challenge. The first is the cargo cult mentality of “we want what you’ve got”. If we adopt the Australian system we’ll become rich like you!
The idea worked for a few individuals, like Somare himself, but not for the people of PNG as a whole. What Pangu and the founding fathers seemed to forget was that you needed a sound economic base and all the social trappings and equities that go with it before the Westminster system could really come into its own.
That’s why it’s been floundering for all these years in Papua New Guinea – the environment has just never been right. Perhaps Somare believed that he could create these conditions fairly quickly; a view that seems fairly fantastical in retrospect.
The other reason is laziness; pure and simple. Not only laziness on the part of the Australian administration for not exploring viable alternatives but also laziness on the part of the founding fathers for accepting what they were given.
The administration probably knew that the government in Canberra, with Gorton gone, would be unlikely to condone any deviation from their own system without a fight because of the bogey man of communism.
But what about Whitlam? He was a committed socialist was he not? Perhaps he feared the wrath of the USA if he set up a socialist state on his doorstep like the USSR was suggesting.
But that should have been a red rag to a bull, so why didn’t Somare go after it? Was it just too hard or wasn’t there enough in it for him? Or did he not understand it? Perhaps he didn’t have the fight in him after all.
It’s all too late now of course. Globalisation is entrenched in the world and the big multinationals have almost absolute power. Theory aside, the practical Westminster system of 1975 is a far cry from the practical Westminster system of 2013.
But these are questions which need to be answered? Joe Nombri, Ebia Olewale, Sinaka Goava, Barry Holloway, John Guise and Paulus Arek and the others are now all gone and have taken their secrets to the grave.
Will Michael Somare come clean one day soon and provide those answers? I doubt it. They might damage his already shaky legacy.
And don’t we know that it’s the Melanesian Way never to admit your mistakes, in public at least.